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Letting Go of Objectivity


Objectivity is commonly viewed as the gold standard for debate and discussion of contentious topics. Bring facts, figures, and evidence, or go home! But this obsession with evidence in human matters–and the constraining of what we’ll accept as evidence–hinders, rather than helps, our access to the truth. There is a better model, one that employs empathy, good faith, and active listening, without sacrificing the quest for truth.

It may help to delve into what is meant by a quest for truth in the first place. In a universe of essentially infinite potential knowledge and possibilities, no one person can ever know everything, or anywhere close to it. Our decaying organic bodies and imperfect senses limit our perceptions and experiences. Worse yet, past experiences–many of which we may no longer consciously recall–influence our attitudes and behavior in both subtle and profound ways. This means that each individual’s view of the world is necessarily incomplete, but also irrevocably biased. So, the bad news is that purely objective knowledge is impossible in the first place.

How, then, can we ever come close to grasping the reality around us?

First, narrow our scope.

This is not a discussion about the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. Those are all governed by physical laws which are known and predictable. Whether humans exist or not, nuclear fusion always works the same way. Instead, this is about the social sciences: human matters. That is, politics, religion, history, culture, society. Where the human element is introduced, a purely objective viewpoint is virtually impossible. This is in part because we are lacking in evidence, but also because whatever evidence we have is subject to interpretation. The very act of someone retelling an experience they had, for instance, comes through multiple layers of construction and interpretation: the way the experience was committed to memory, the way that memory has changed over time, the way that memory is recalled and translated into words, and the way a listener interprets those words–all of these distort the truth of whatever is being related. It is simply unavoidable so long as we rely on fallible human memories and imperfect human language.

Understand the limits of “objective” evidence.

It is tempting to reduce the world around us to numbers and mathematics. This is a quantitative approach to reasoning. It works to some extent, but it has gaps–there are details it simply can’t account for. As an everyday example, think of the last time you reported feeling pain to a doctor. You may have been asked to rate that pain on a scale from 1 to 10. This is an attempt at obtaining a quantitative measurement. Unless it was the worst pain you’ve ever felt–an easy 10!–you may have had a difficult time coming up with a specific number. How do you reduce the way you feel to a particular value? It entails a loss of information: your idea of a 6 may be completely different from a doctor or nurse’s. You might also be asked what kind of pain it is: stabbing, throbbing, dull, or some other description. This, in fact, is a qualitative measure. The general question, “How do you feel?” is qualitative in nature. The information it imparts is still imperfect, yet it communicates something that simply could not be expressed in numbers alone.

That’s just taking a simple, everyday example. Accepting that the sphere of human activity is enormously larger and more complex, we must allow for the reality that boiling our world down to facts and numbers is a hopeless task.

Embrace constructionism.

Constructionism was bound to come up sooner or later–it’s practically in the name of this site! Despite its reputation, it is not that difficult to understand. The concept is simple: our view of the world does not consist of objective details assembled into a truthful picture of reality, but is instead a shared understanding shaped by our experiences and how we communicate about them. This means there is no objective truth underpinning the construction–or at least, anything objective underlying it is not possible to separate from how it is experienced, remembered, and described. The objective component, if one exists, cannot be determined. This can be difficult to accept, but in a social context, it is the only way forward.

What this means, however, is that demanding facts and statistical evidence at every turn is doomed to provide incomplete if not fatally flawed picture of reality. Reality itself is constructed: there is no “true” reality that we can hope to comprehend. At best, we can come to some sort of agreement on how that reality functions. This is where experience and empathy come in.

Recognize the constraints of your experience.

A shared view of reality requires substantially shared experiences. This should be self-evident, but it is not difficult to reason through, either. People from similar a similar combination of cultural, ethnic, religious, and financial backgrounds are likely to view the world similarly, and relate to one another with relative ease. To use a hyperbolic example, you will generally relate much better to a neighbor you grew up next door to than a random person who grew up on the other side of the world. Even if you happened to speak the same language so that you could communicate, your experiences will have been so dissimilar that finding common ground would likely prove quite difficult.

Being unable to relate to another person and their worldview doesn’t mean something is wrong with them–nor does it mean there is anything wrong with you. Yet, when it comes to discussion of contentious issues, it is easy to dismiss a lack of contextual agreement as bad faith. If someone reports having lived an experience that sounds completely alien–even implausible–to you, that does not mean they are lying, or that they misjudged what occurred. What is true is that the facts of the events are filtered through their own experience, transformed as they are committed to memory, transformed further as they are recalled and expressed in language, and interpreted yet again when you hear/read them. There is no way to know what “really” happened–there is no formulation of a human-related event that can be fully divorced from its social context. There is only one’s experience of an event, reactions to it, and recollections and descriptions of it. A described experience is therefore useful not as a statement of a factual reality, but as a means to bridge two (or more) people’s worldviews.

What prevents this–what provokes defensive, even hostile, reactions–are assumptions of bad faith and a lack of empathy.

Assume good faith, and empathize.

It would be naive to argue that one should always assume good faith in all instances. There are times when lies and deceit are obvious, when particular sources are known to be untrustworthy, to nurture specific biases and produce deliberately distorted versions of reality. The key is to not assume deception by default. On the surface, this appears to go against the basic principle of skepticism and critical thought. Rather, it is more a question of the standards by which we make value judgments. Things for which we have not seen what we consider to be sufficient evidence, we may assume to be false–but this is just as erroneous as accepting everything at face value. What we individually consider to be “objective” has more to do with what aligns with our personal experiences and various biases–what fits into our established social context–rather than conclusions arrived at through “fact-based” reasoning. This is not for lack of trying, but it is an unavoidable characteristic of human experience.

This leaves us with few options. We could reject everything that doesn’t match up with our existing worldview, which leaves us with a rigid, impermeable conception of reality. We could accept everything as equally true and thus completely meaningless. We could give up on trying to understanding the world around us at all.

Or, we can acknowledge that, as impossible as a perfect and objective view of the world is, we can each still develop and enhance our individual model of it, and learn how to integrate the experiences of others–even experiences we find completely incongruent–into our understanding. What is needed for this is not just good faith, but empathy.

If we assume that a person relating their experience isn’t lying, we must take it a step further in order to understand and integrate. If we find ourselves puzzled by someone’s story, it is good to think through the motives of the person telling it. Ask yourself: why would a reasonable person think this and say this? Put yourself in their frame of reference, as much as you can. If they are communicating emotional information, attempt to relate to the emotions themselves, rather than the circumstances surrounding them. If someone indicates that a situation made them angry, it may not be necessary to know why it made them angry, only that it did, and that you also know what it is like to feel angry. On this level, at least, it is possible to relate and empathize.

What is all this for?

The most contentious topics are often contentious precisely of their emotional and human elements, and their dependence on the individual’s cultural context. In order to communicate in a productive fashion–that is, in a way that produces some level mutual understanding–it is necessary to let go of any obsession with “objective” knowledge. It is not helpful for bridging gaps in understanding, but instead actively prevents it. The alternative is to pay attention to what differing perspectives have to say, and attempt to integrate those details into your own worldview. This process is imperfect–an experience cannot be translated fully into words, nor is a description of it a real substitute for having lived it–but it is the best we can do at this point in time.

Accepting the experiences and emotions of others as both unique and valid is an essential step on the road to understanding one’s own relationship to the world. We must accept that the way we see the world is not the way the world actually is, and the latter is a form of knowledge that none of us possess. This does not, of course, mean that larger issues described by other people do not exist, but rather that each person’s understanding of a given issue will differ, and it is only by negotiating openly between disjoint experiences that we can hope to come to terms. Perfect understanding may be impossible; mutual respect and the acknowledgment of our basic dignity, however, is not.